Sympathy in Wright's Native Son

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In Native Son, Richard Wright introduces Bigger Thomas, a liar and a

thief. Wright evokes sympathy for this man despite the fact that he

commits two murders. Through the reactions of others to his actions and

through his own reactions to what he has done, the author creates

compassion in the reader towards Bigger to help convey the desperate

state of Black Americans in the 1930's.

The simplest method Wright uses to produce sympathy is the portrayal of

the hatred and intolerance shown toward Thomas as a black criminal.

This first occurs when Bigger is immediately suspected as being involved

in Mary Dalton's disappearance. Mr. Britten suspects that Bigger is

guilty and only ceases his attacks when Bigger casts enough suspicion on

Jan to convince Mr. Dalton. Britten explains, "To me, a nigger's a

nigger" (Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper and Row, 1940.

154). Because of Bigger's blackness, it is immediately assumed that he

is responsible in some capacity. This assumption causes the reader to

sympathize with Bigger. While only a kidnapping or possible murder are

being investigated, once Bigger is fingered as the culprit, the

newspapers say the incident is "possibly a sex crime" (228). Eleven

pages later, Wright depicts bold black headlines proclaiming a "rapist"

(239) on the loose. Wright evokes compassion for Bigger, knowing that

he is this time unjustly accused. The reader is greatly moved when

Chicago's citizens direct all their racial hatred directly at Bigger.

The shouts "Kill him! Lynch him! That black sonofabitch! Kill that

black ape!" (253) immediately after his capture encourage a concern for

Bigger's well-being. Wright intends for the reader to extend this fear

for the safety of Bigger toward the entire black community. The

reader's sympathy is further encouraged when the reader remembers that

all this hatred has been spurred by an accident.

While Bigger Thomas does many evil things, the immorality of his role

in Mary Dalton's death is questionable. His hasty decision to put the

pillow over Mary's face is the climax of a night in which nothing has

gone right for Bigger. We feel sympathy because Bigger has been forced

into uncomfortable positions all night. With good intentions, Jan and

Mary place Bigger in situations that make him feel "a cold, dumb, and

inarticulate hate" (68) for them. Wright hopes the reader will share

Bigger's uneasiness. The reader struggles with Bigger's task of getting

Mary into her bed and is relieved when he has safely accomplished his

mission. With the revelation of Mary's death, Wright emphasizes

Bigger's future, turning Mary into the "white woman" (86) that Bigger

will be prosecuted for killing. Wright focuses full attention on the

bewildered Bigger, forcing the reader to see the situation through

Bigger's eyes. He uses Bigger's bewilderment to represent the

confusion and desperation of Black America. The author stresses that

Bigger Thomas is a mere victim of desperation, not a perpetrator of

malicious violence.

Desperation is the characteristic Wright uses throughout the novel to

draw sympathy for Bigger. A killer with a calculated plan for evading

punishment would be viewed more negatively than Bigger, a confused young

man desperately seeking a means of escape. His first poor decision

after Mary's death is to burn her in the Dalton furnace. The vile and

outrageous course of action taken by Bigger impresses upon the reader

the complete disarray of his thoughts. Readers observe the absence of

careful thought as Bigger jumps out the Dalton's window, urinating on

himself, and as he frantically rushes from building to building,

searching for shelter. However, Wright also includes actions that seem

irreproachable despite Bigger's state of mind. His brutal murder of

Bessie,...
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